Civil Rights Mural

The larger portraits on our civil rights mural depict: Saint Anna Alexander, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King, Jr., Howard Thurman, Ahmaud Arbery, Mary Turner in the form of a tree of life, Marsha P. Johnson, and John Lewis.1

As practicing Christians, we firmly believe that we must do all we can to form a society that is based on justice, equality, and compassion for all members of the human race. This is what Martin Luther King, Jr., called the “Beloved Community.” We can only hope to reach this goal if we are able to tell the truth about our communities and ourselves, and if we dismantle racism and homophobia that continue to haunt our society. With our mural we hope to provide opportunities to reflect on our successes and failures as a society, to acknowledge the work that still lies ahead, and to heal our world one relationship, one neighborhood, and one community at the time.2

The mural, which is adjacent to Mack’s Park on McKey Street in Valdosta, Georgia, displays portraits of Saint Anna Alexander (a Saint of the Diocese of Georgia since 1998), Martin Luther King, Jr., (an internationally known civil rights leader and Georgia native), Howard Thurman (an author, theologian, and civil rights leader), Marsha P. Johnson (a nationally known LGBTQ rights activist), and John Lewis (a well-known civil rights leader from Georgia).

Also depicted on the mural are Mary Turner (a victim of the 1918 Georgia lynching rampage) in the form of a tree of life and Ahmaud Arbery (who was a victim of racial violence in February 2020). Other portraits show Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, and Maya Angelou.

Weaving across the mural is a rainbow-colored ribbon which in one area displays notes and lyrics from the Billy Holiday song “Strange Fruit”.

Note: Our mural artists are Taylor Shaw (former VSU professor) and A’Shadrian “Shay” Clayton (former VSU student).

Video from the dedication ceremony that took place on August 19, 2023.

Short biographic sketches of those depicted on our mural:

Saint Anna Alexander (1865 – 1947):

Anna Ellison Butler Alexander was born on St. Simons Island in 1865 as the youngest of eleven children to James and Daphne Alexander. Her parents were once enslaved at Butler Plantation near Darien, Georgia, and greatly influenced her commitment to the church and education. Despite the obstacles of the Jim Crow era, Anna Alexander started a mission in Pennick, Georgia, by building Good Shepherd School in 1902, where she taught children to read. Due to her hard work and deep devotion, Anna Alexander became the first African American deaconess in the Episcopal Church in 1907. Expanding her mission, she built Good Shepherd Church in 1929, right next to the one-room schoolhouse.

In 1998, Bishop Henry Louttit named Anna Alexander a Saint of Georgia, and in 2015, at the 78th general convention, she was also recognized as a Saint of the national Episcopal Church. Since then, September 24 is celebrated as Saint Anna Alexander Feast Day. If you want to learn more about her, watch “A Life Beloved – Deaconess Alexander”.

Malcolm X (1925 – 1965):

Malcolm X was the fourth of eight children of Louise and Earl Little. Like Martin Luther King’s father, his father was a Baptist preacher and a Civil Rights activist. When he was six years old, his father was killed in a car accident, likely the victim of racial violence. A few years later, Malcolm’s mother was institutionalized because of mental illness. Subsequently, he became a ward of the court, entered foster care, went to different schools, and at the age of 15 dropped out of school.

Arrested on burglary charges in 1946, he spent more than six years in prison. It was during this time that he advanced his education, joined the Nation of Islam (a political organization), and embraced Black nationalism. While Martin Luther King adopted a nonviolent approach, Malcolm X was willing to cast off the shackles of racism “by any means necessary,” including violence. However, Malcolm broke with the Nation of Islam in early 1964 and decided to go on the hajj, to practice his faith. It was then that he moved toward a greater understanding of Martin Luther King’s nonviolent movement and adopted the new name el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. On February 21, 1965, he was assassinated by members of the Nation of Islam.

In Martin Luther King’s own words: “While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had the great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem.”

Harriet Tubman (1822 – 1913):

Born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, and given the name Araminta Ross, she had eight siblings, and her parents were Harriet and Benjamin Ross. Early signs of her resistance to slavery surfaced at the age of twelve, when she tried to stop her master from abusing another slave. Due to her interference, she was brutally beaten, leaving her with a lifetime of severe headaches. Although slaves were not allowed to do so, she married John Tubman, a free black man, in 1844, henceforth adopting the name Harriet Tubman.

Once she escaped slavery in 1849, Harriet became known as the “Moses of her people” by helping others to get away through her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Due to her intimate knowledgeable of towns and transportation networks, she served as a Union spy, scout, and soldier during the Civil War, making her the first African American woman to be in the military. Tubman was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York, in 1913.

Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014):

Born as Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, the world-famous dancer, poet, singer, and activist was the second of two children to Bailey and Vivian Baxter Johnson. She was nicknamed “Maya” by her brother Bailey, Jr., when she was a child. Her parents divorced when she was only three years old and the siblings went to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their grandmother, but repeatedly returned to St. Louis. As World War II unfolded, Angelou moved to her mother who at that time lived in Oakland, California. Maya first attended George Washington High School, then went to San Francisco’s Labor School, and eventually graduated at the age of seventeen. Three weeks after her graduation, she gave birth to her only son, Claude “Guy” Johnson. At the age of twenty-one, she married the Greek sailor, Tosh Angelos. Although the marriage only lasted three years, it was during this time that she changed her stage name to Maya Angelou.

Maya Angelou became well-known around 1950 as a calypso dancer, eventually found a new career as a cast member for the opera production Porgy and Bess, allowing her to tour Europe, before she moved to New York City in the late 50s, to concentrate on her writing career. It was at this time that she started working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) under Martin Luther King. In the early 60s she went to Cairo, Egypt, to briefly work for a weekly newspaper, before she relocated to Ghana, to teach at the School of Music and Drama and become an editor with “The African Review”. In 1964, Angelou returned to the US to help Malcolm X with the Organization of African American Unity. However, with the assassination of Malcolm X a year later, the newly founded organization collapsed.

Starting in 1970, Angelou published several autobiographies, the first of which was “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”. Through the years she also released different collections of poems which brought her much acclaim, including a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize. She was also the recipient of three Grammy Awards for her spoken word albums and received an Emmy for her role in the TV series “Roots”. In 1981, Angelou became the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University, and in 1993 she was invited to recite her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Throughout her life, she was recognized by national and international organizations for her contributions to literature. President Barack Obama awarded Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, and in 2015 the US Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor.

Maya Angelou died on May 28, 2014, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Martin Luther King, Jr., (1929 – 1968):

Born on January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King, Jr., came from a family of Baptist preachers. His grandfather started the family’s tenure as pastors of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, before his father stepped in. For a few years, King also served as a co-pastor of the church before he met his untimely death in 1968.

Growing up in Georgia, King attended segregated public schools, graduated from high school at the age of fifteen, and received his bachelor’s degree in 1948 from Morehouse College, just as his father and grandfather did. From Morehouse College he went to the Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he was awarded a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951. Equipped with a fellowship from Crozer, he then went to Boston University, where he studied under Howard Thurman, and where he received his doctoral degree in 1955. In Boston he also met his future wife Coretta Scott, and once they were married, they became the parents of two sons and two daughters.

From Boston, Martin Luther went to Montgomery, Alabama, where he became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Heavily invested in the civil rights for members of his race, he joined the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In December of 1955, he became the leader of the first great nonviolent demonstration of contemporary times in the US, the Montgomery bus boycott, which started with the arrest of Rosa Parks who had refused to give up her seat. Just a year later, the US Supreme Court declared that laws requiring segregation on buses were unconstitutional.

In 1957, King was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a newly formed organization that provided leadership for a burgeoning civil rights movement. The organization was deeply rooted in Christian ideals, but its operational techniques were inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s example via Howard Thurman’s teachings.

From 1957 until 1968, King traveled countless miles, gave hundreds of speeches, and appeared wherever he saw injustices, to protest, and to call for action. He was also able to write books and numerous articles while leading massive protests and providing what he called a coalition of conscience. Especially his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” his peaceful march on Washington, D.C., and his famous “l Have a Dream” speech influenced people around the world. In 1963, Time magazine named Martin Luther King, Jr., the Man of the Year, and in 1964, he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated while standing on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had planned to lead a protest march in support of striking garbage workers.

Howard Thurman (1899 – 1981):

Born in Daytona Beach in 1899, he spent much of his childhood in the Sunshine State. While growing up, he was especially influenced by his maternal grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, who once worked as a slave on a plantation in Madison County. After completing eighth grade in Daytona Beach, he went to Florida Baptist Academy in Jacksonville, which at the time was one of only three high schools for African Americans in Florida.

After the academy, he went to Morehouse College in Georgia, where he graduated in 1923. He then moved on to Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in New York to pursuit further studies. While still a student in Rochester, he was ordained as a Baptist minister. Once he graduated in 1926, he went to Oberlin, Ohio, where he served for two years as a pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church.

Starting in 1928, Howard Thurman began his academic career. Among others, he served as the Director of Religious Life at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges in Atlanta, as dean of Andrew Rankin Chapel at Howard University, and as dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, where Martin Luther King, Jr., became one of his students.

In 1935-36, Howard Thurman led a delegation of African Americans to India, where he met with Mahatma Gandhi, whose principles of nonviolent resistance deeply influenced him, just as Thurman would later inspire the civil rights movement in the US.

It is no accident that Martin Luther King, Jr., is looking up to Howard Thurman on our mural. Howard Thurman did not take to marching and mobilizing on the streets but he served as a caretaker and spiritual advisor to civil rights activists who did, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, Marian Wright Edelman, and countless others, many of whom carried a copy of his book “Jesus and the Disinherited” with them. To learn more about Howard Thurman, watch the 2019 documentary “Back against the wall: the Howard Thurman Story”.

Ahmaud Arbery (1994 – 2020):

Ahmaud Arbery was born in 1994, the youngest of three children. He went to Brunswick Highschool and soon became a star player on the school’s football team. Like most kids of his age, he occasionally got into trouble, but what schoolmates and teachers remember most about him was his talent for raising people’s spirit.

After graduating in 2012, he went to South Georgia Technical College to train as an electrician. Like many of his contemporaries he continued to live at home, working different jobs, while trying to figure out what to do next. He also liked to stay in shape and jogged through Brunswick’s neighborhoods. In February of 2020, when he was doing his daily run, he was suddenly being pursuit by three individuals who suspected him of a burglary.

Ahmaud Arbery, who was unarmed, tried to get away from his pursuers but was eventually cornered and a struggle ensued during which he was shot three times. He died on the scene. If it wasn’t for a video of the incident that surfaced ten weeks later, those responsible for his death might still run free. Once the truth came out, Arbery’s death resulted in widespread protests.

Mary Turner (1899 – 1918):

Mary Hattie Graham was one of four children of sharecroppers. Only seventeen years old, she married Hazel “Hayes” Turner in Colquitt County in February of 1917. The couple already had two children before they married and after their wedding moved to Brooks County to take jobs on a plantation owned by Hampton Smith. The plantation owner was known for abusing his workers, but the newlyweds were determined to raise their children in Brooks County.

On May 16, 1918, the plantation owner was killed by one of his workers. In the days that followed, a mob driven manhunt (known as the “Georgia Lynching Rampage”) resulted in the killing of at least 13 people, one of whom was Mary’s husband. Eight months pregnant, Mary Turner decried the lynching of her husband and denied that he had anything to do with the murder. To “teach her a lesson” the mob then focused on her, eventually found her just as she entered Lowndes County, and brutally lynched her and her unborn baby near the Little River.

We do not know what Mary Turner looked like, but Shay Clayton, one of our two amazing artists, decided to depict her in the form of a tree, a tree of life, reaching up into the sky. The rainbow-colored ribbon, which is weaving across our mural, wraps around the tree and in this area notes and lyrics of Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” are displayed.

Marsha P. Johnson (1945 – 1992):

Marsha was born in 1945 as the fifth of seven children to Malcolm Michaels and Alberta Claiborne. Assigned male at birth, Johnson grew up in a working-class family, began attending an African Methodist Episcopal church at an early age, and remained a practicing Christian for the rest of her life. Johnson enjoyed wearing women’s clothing at an early age, reflecting her sense of self, but felt pressured to stop doing so because of bullying and sexual assaults. After graduating from high school, she moved to New York City where she returned to dressing in women’s clothing and changed her name from Malcolm Michaels, Jr., to Marsha P. Johnson.

It was difficult to live on the margins of society, New York state persecuted members of the LGBTQ community, and frequently criminalized their presence and activities. Marsha’s life changed radically in 1969, when she found herself in the midst of the Stonewall Inn riots on Christopher Street, the first uprising of the LGBTQ community against discrimination and police brutality. Within a short amount of time, she became one of the most prominent figures of the LGBTQ rights movement. Always dressed colorfully and sporting a smile, Marsha became an advocate for homeless LGBTQ members, for those effected by H.I.V. and AIDS, and for gay and transgender rights.

On July 6, 1992, Marsha’s body was found in the Hudson River. Although her death was ruled a suicide, circumstances were mysterious, and her friends suspected foul play. Even today, in the twenty-first century, dozens of transgender people are murdered every year.

John Lewis (1940-2020):

The son of sharecroppers and originally from Alabama, John Lewis became one of the most recognizable and respected faces of the civil rights movement. In 1960, only 20 years old, he participated in the “Nashville sit-ins”, to protest racial segregation at lunch counters. Just a year later, he joined the “Freedom Rides” to challenge the non-enforcement of US Supreme Court decisions which ruled that segregated public buses were unconstitutional. In 1963, he became the chairman of the “Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee” (SNCC), and in the same year he organized the “March on Washington” with Martin Luther King and others. In 1965, John Lewis led the first “Selma to Montgomery march” across Edmund Pettus Bridge, where he and hundreds of others were viciously attacked by state troopers in what became known as “Bloody Sunday”.

John Lewis was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1986, where he represented Georgia’s Fifth Congressional district for seventeen terms until his death in 2020. If you want to learn more about John Lewis and his remarkable life, watch the 2020 documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble”.

Background on Christ the King:

Until 2020, Christ the King Episcopal Church, led by the late Father Stan White, was located at 101 East Central Avenue. This also was where you found Hildegard’s, a café that regularly served as a venue for music and art shows. Today, a boutique hotel and the Gūd Coffee House are located there.

In 2021, the building at 101 East Central Avenue was sold and a new building for our church was acquired at 110 McKey Street, directly adjacent to Mack’s Park.

Background on Mack’s Park:

In 2002, Valdosta received a new landmark with Mack’s Park. This park was dedicated in honor of William “Mack” Freeman, former owner of the Flower Gallery, who passed away in 2000. Mack was a beloved business owner and a member of our LGBTQ community. The park contains a sculpture by Wilby Coleman (“Unarranged Flowers: Where is Mack now that we need him?”)

In 2005, the VSU student Sarah Lippincott, who also worked at the Flower Gallery, painted a small mural on the wall of our building to honor Mack. Although her mural, which deteriorated over time, is no longer visible, with our new mural we also wanted to honor him. If you look closely, you will find a small portrait of Mack on our wall, alongside other beloved community activists and friends we have lost over the years.

1Local “Good Trouble” Makers:

Our mural also depicts community members who are no longer with us, but who left an indelible mark on our city: Jane Louise Elza, Karen R. Noll, Linda Bennett Elder, Charles E. Todd, II., William “Mack” Freeman, Grant Brown, Rev. Stan White, and Gale Thomas Eger.

2 See also the article by the Episcopal News Service from August 25, 2023.

In March 2024, we installed two display boards in front of our mural for an interactive, educational experience via QR codes. The panels were designed by Shay Clayton.

For more information about our country’s history of racial violence and paths to racial healing, we recommend the following websites: